by Doug Carpenter


Don’t Blame Us. They Started It!

Of the many pieces of wisdom people like to impart to young parents, one of the most familiar has to be the simultaneously kindly and ominous reminder that “children learn what they live.” But as often and as pointedly it may have been quoted to Baby Boomer Moms and Dads [...usually by concerned on-lookers who had just witnessed our valiant if unsure attempts at child rearing and were understandably fearful for how our poor kids would turn out...], we generally dismissed it as advice from well-meaning worrywarts.

That’s not to say that those nervous Nellies were wrong. In fact, they probably didn’t even realize how right they were — since that would’ve required them to see a much bigger picture than, frankly, most people these days are inclined to even bother looking at let alone trying to comprehend. It’s no surprise that in the age of ever-shortening attention spans, taking the “long view” has become a lost art.

There was a time, of course, when the wisdom that comes with thinking ahead was valued and respected. For example, according to the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee — a Native American principle that provided inspiration for the U.S. Constitution, every tribal decision must take into consideration the impact it will have on not just one or even two future generations but seven. [Apparently, in a world as big on miniaturization as we are, seven generations has been downsized to more like seven years... if we’re lucky.]

There’s nothing stopping us, however, from starting now to reverse that trend. And as a show of good faith, I’ll even go first — by confessing to having short-sightedly allowed myself to become overly proud of the impact Baby Boomers have had on the world. Because no matter how ego gratifying it may be to praise the changes and innovations my generation may have been responsible for, the one thing I can say with categorical certainty that we did not invent was ourselves.

Obviously this has nothing to do with biology here, although I have to say we were pretty good at that, too, even if we didn’t exactly invent it. [Remember the “Sexual Revolution?” That was us.] No. We were brought into this world the same, totally mature and adult way every previous generation was — by Mommies and Daddies who were in the mood for some nookie and got a little frisky.

The fact that we were born in an era when social convention made grown men and women feel they had to use cutesy words like “nookie” and “frisky” when discussing interpersonal intimacy goes a long way toward explaining what sent the pendulum swinging so exuberantly far in the opposite direction when it came to Boomers’ graphically uninhibited attitudes about “gettin’ down and gettin’ busy” — something I’m sure our Generation X offspring will be exploring with their therapists for a long time. [What the Xers do to mess up their kids will be totally up to them.]

So, to recap. Our parents, a.k.a. the “Greatest Generation,” produced us, the Baby Boomers... who in turn gave birth to Generation X... from whom subsequently sprang the Millennials... who have now gone on the give the world yet another “Generation” — which apparently will have to get along without an official name until the people whose self-appointed job it is to decide such things get their act together. [If you’re curious to know what it ends up being called, just keep an eye on The New York Times literary section’s best-seller list. I’m sure it won’t be hard to miss.]

Whether you’re talking about people, values or social movements, everything comes from something. Which brings me back to my earlier point that — not just organically but intellectually and spiritually — the Baby Boom generation was not a creature of its own making. And you know all that pride we feel so deeply about the social issues we fought for so passionately? There’s someone we need to gratefully share it with. Our parents. If it weren’t for them, we never would’ve done a lot of what we did, and the world would be a very different place.

Oh, man. I can almost hear you now. “Our parents?! What are you talking about? They didn’t inspire us. We rejected their generation’s ways and swore we’d be different. And we were. We did ...didn’t we?” O.K. Take a breath. Relax. Don’t worry. Yes. We were all badass non-conformists, so you won’t have to update your Facebook profile with a photo of you wearing a sensible cardigan sweater [...although they are pretty comfy on crisp Fall nights.]

I’m not talking about anything that would be detectable externally. What I’m referring to are the parts of them that became and remained part of you on the inside — shaping you in ways that ultimately helped you reshape the world. You never even knew it was happening. All they did was be who they were, and all you did was grow up watching them do it.

Just for a moment here, try to remember what it was like back then. And not just the past as most of us usually remember it — in images based on the “snapshot memories” our minds automatically recall from family photo albums. Try to see the actual world in which both you and your parents lived, where all of your lives unfolded individually as well as interconnectedly, and how the events that filled each day might’ve affected them and, through them, you.

After saving humanity from tyranny in what we had hoped would be “the war to end all wars,” more than 16 million of America’s “Greatest Generation” — though sadly not the 292,000 who bravely gave their lives — returned victoriously from World War II to a new and very different post-war reality. Ready to resume the civilian lives that had been put on hold, they proceeded to kick-start a future more remarkable than they could ever have imagined.

Like a high-performance sports car that had been idling for most of the 1940s, the national economy would quickly accelerate from manufacturing battleships and bullets to mass-producing Buicks and baby carriages [...for taking you-know-who out for a little fresh air.] The history-making “booms” — consumer, housing, hiring and, obviously, baby — were off and running. Now that our G.I. Joes were back, life, while busy, was good — though, to be honest, perhaps not quite as good for the Judies, Joanies and Janes who had waited stateside for them to come home.

I should mention here that their parents’ lives were so much more complex than most Boomers can probably be expected to remember, even having witnessed them from about as intimate a vantage point as they could’ve had but through eyes that were too young to really understand and too close to be objective. The small but telling tale that I’m about to share, however, illustrates how even a memory you don’t actually remember can influence who you turn out to be.

As we rejoin our fabulous ’50s flashback already in progress, Leave It to Beaver patriarch Ward Cleaver has just returned from a hard day at “the office.” Unlike Ozzie and Harriet’s Ozzie Nelson, who worked in advertising, or insurance agent Jim Anderson of Father Knows Best, we never actually knew what good, old, unflappable Ward did for a living.

However he paid the bills — [Loan shark? Male escort? Your guess is as good as mine.] — he always made it home in time to sit down to a lovely dinner with his impeccably-dressed, pearl-accessorized wife, June, and his irrepressible sons Wally and Theodore. But aside from the fleeting glimpses we caught of June baking cookies, refereeing predictable sitcom squabbles between the boys and their neighborhood buddies, or wisely seeing through Eddie Haskell’s self-serving sycophancy, we were never privy to her inner dialogue, assuming she had one.

But even if she didn’t, lots of the Moms of that era did — struggling with conflicted emotions while waving lovingly from the front door as they watched their newly-repatriated veteran husbands drive off to jobs that provided them with purpose, personal growth and even — sigh — adult conversation. Granted, not every stay-at-home Mom felt this angst. But the ones who did were experiencing something that would ultimately be truly transformative — the longing for “something more.”

Most of them would keep it pretty much to themselves, living lives of what Henry David Thoreau described as “quiet desperation.” Some would talk about it — with friends, usually over a piping cup of Maxwell House — if only to get it off their chests. And the others? The ones who couldn’t hold it in? Well, they would end up having “Don’t worry, sweetheart, Mommy and Daddy are only discussing something” arguments with their Wards, Ozzies and Jims.

And who had a front row seat for all of these highly-charged domestic debates? Their kids — deep in whose emotional memories the experience would bury powerful impressions of their mothers’ frustration with the gender-based constraints society placed on them. It would take years for these seeds to grow into the feminist cause that their by-then college-age children and their fellow Baby Boomers would champion, fighting forcefully and effectively for change not just because it was right or just or overdue but — without even realizing why — because it mattered to their Moms.

Combine this simple dynamic — repeated again and again across a wide range of critical social issues — with all of the other life-defining events we witnessed during our impressionable, formative years and the theory that forgotten experiences can have the power to shape an entire generation’s motivations and values begins to explain a lot, doesn’t it? After all, every revolution has to have a reason that makes it worth fighting. And while the Baby Boomers may have sparked their share, even a spark has to have something to ignite.

© 2017 Doug Carpenter

Back to After 50 Home Page